I'd like to continue the series (Part I
, and III
here) on the productivity killers you won't find in the textbooks with another classic: Attitude.
But first, please permit me a thought experiment.
Imagine, if you will, that you've just had problems with the ol' minivan. It's running a little rough, struggling to go uphill. Well, it's due for an oil change and tire rotation anyway -- you take it into the locally-owner (used car) dealership and service center. Two days, an inspection, a tune-up, a new intake manifold, and seven hundred dollars later, you take the car home.
Well ... you try. Before picking up the vehicle, you ask for the inspection report ... and they can't produce it. Twenty minutes later, you get an inspection report, and the service manager says "Did you know your car has a transmission leak?"
Er, um ... what? Shouldn't you have told me that two days ago? "We just found it right now"
So they keep the car another two hours, finally finding nothing, telling you it must have been a spill when the fluids were topped off. They drop the car off your home, and you give them the credit card number and get your keys.
... only now sounds the car sounds whole lot worse. And, um ... there's a pool of this red stuff on the driveway.The next day, disgusted. you take it into another service center.
Suddenly your car is leaking power steering fluid.
What the heck is going on here?
It could be a number of different things. Perhaps the mechanics are not capable of doing the work I asked them to do. Perhaps it was just a "bad day" and they were making mistakes, tired or lazy. Either way they may have damaged something when replacing the intake manifold ... or someone at the center might just be pulling a scam.
For the purposes of this discussion, though, I would like to consider a different possibility: The staff were all thinking like technicans
. That is to say, the did everything you asked: The did change the oil, they did "take a look at it", they did top off the fluid, replace the intake manifold, and turn the tires.
The thing is, you aren't taking it in to have four specific operations performed on the vehicle: You were taking it in to have a problem solved. You suspected something was wrong, you lacked the expertise to fix it, and you took it to the experts. You wanted them to fix the problem.
Instead, they transformed that into "performing a specific set of operations."
They were technicians; you wanted a professional.
I would argue that this problem is all too common in today's society; you can even find it in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
. (If just want to jump to that story you can read it online
; search for "The questions why comes back" and read about seven paragraphs.)
And in the organization, it's a killer.
"Not my problem; not my job responsibility"
You know you are dealing with technicians when you have a technical problem, and instead of solving it, people are either playing "pass the buck", "hot potato", or, perhaps, pointing fingers. Or maybe you have a problem-tracking system and you see tickets bouncing around.
There can be other symptoms. In these kinds of organizations, people will rarely take responsibility. If something is assigned to them, it will be either drop-dead simple, or else you will get weasel word commitments like "I'll try", "I'll see what I can do", or the dreaded "I can't see any reason why we couldn't"
And there may be very good reasons people do this kind of weaseling. Perhaps those that do take responsibility are actively punished. Perhaps the weasels are rewarded. Perhaps management likes to make all the decisions. And hey, taking responsibility is hard
; you certainly can't be held to any promises if you don't make any.
I've worked in environments like this, managed projects in it. The attitude is cultural, and can be hard to fight. In the worst cases, i've been in these really strange conversations. I would ask the technicans how much time they needed or how they would solve the problem, and they would use some weasel words, or ask me for direction, or point out it wasn't their section, or ask me for direction, or ask me for direction.
them direction was always a mistake; they could then complain "Well, that's Heusser's
plan, not mine."
Yet I couldn't help but think of that poor person in purchasing, or operations, who just wanted to get that #$#%# report to stop timing out.
I mean, really. When we got down to doing the actual work, it invariable took minutes. Maybe a few hours. Perhaps some phone calls to get answers to questions, but the #$% work was trivial.
Wouldn't it be better if we spent out effort trying to solve the problem?
If you couldn't figure it out, I have a kind of moral issue with this attitude. But it's more than that: It's about that Paul in Purchasing. He still doesn't have his report fixed!
Professionalism Leads to Productivity
Professionals solve problems. They take responsibility. Their work has meaning
. If they do it better, they get proportional rewards
- if they work harder, they get more stuff. In the words of consultant Dan Pink, the professional has the opportunity for "Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery
Technicians, on the other hand, have a management layer between themselves and the customer. (The management layer will likely spend a lot of time talking about the "defined process." ix-nay on the autonomy and mastery.)
The management layer also make it very unlikely that the technician gets a "slice of the pie" for better outcomes. Perhaps they can get a larger raise when a "rising tide floats all boats." Even if that happens, the raises will be disconnected in space and time from the work -- they are uncertain, delayed, and partially the result of politics. Without some "X Factor", some leadership, or something else, the technicians will end up trying to figure out how to get paid the most while doing the least work. (There is an old saw, after all, that the reward for being a good system administrator is people feel more comfortable asking you questions directly. So don't be polite; be a jerk other people run away from.)
Professionals run in a system of forces that leads them to solve the customer's problems -- fast.
Technicians, as it turns out? Not so much.
The bottom line is that if your technical staff are set up as technicians, and your competition is set up as professionals ... you've got a problem. (Not only that, but your
work life probably isn't very much fun.)
We've got a lot of work to do
The description of professional above turns out to fit reasonably well for most "professions": Doctors, Lawyers, independent accounts, surveyors, engineers, and yes, independent and boutique technologists. But in the IT shop in North America, well, I submit, we've got a lot of work to do.
This problem is bigger than a single blog post; it's certainly not an easy one. Over the next few weeks I will be doing more blogging on professionalism. More importantly, Robert Martin's landmark book "The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers
" comes out in May. It's available for pre-order right now
My only issue is with the title: it's not just for programmers. I believe the book speaks to every technologist; from tester to DBA to system administrator. And graphic designer, project manager, supervisor, 'analyst.' You name it. It's a book for the do-er, but managers can benefit from it as well.
... and, yes, I've been honored with writing the forward. Still, besides my couple of terrible pages, it's a really good book. You should check it out. (Ok, my pages aren't that bad. But you should have seen the first draft I turned in, and how Robert Martin worked with me on it.)
More to come.